The bystander effect, also called bystander apathy, is the reality that people observing situations in which they are called to help, such as calling the police or stopping a crime as it is being committed, are less likely to do so in the presence of others. The larger the group of bystanders, the larger the diffusion of responsibility and the less likely any one individual is to step forward and intervene. The term “bystander effect” was first coined by John Darley and Bibb Latane after Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered in 1964 and can be applied to different situations in which group dynamics affect personal decision-making.
Martin Gansberg of the New York Times, who reported on the murder of Genovese, noted that 38 neighbors listened and/or watched as she was sexually assaulted and repeatedly stabbed outside her Kew Gardens, New York apartment and did nothing to help. The original article caused nationwide outrage and included a quote from one neighbor stating, “I didn’t want to get involved.” The 2014 murder of 23-year-old Annie Kim Pham outside a Santa Ana, California bar displays how technology plays a role in the modern bystander effect. Approximately 50 people watched as Pham was beaten on the sidewalk by a group of strangers. Many of these individuals pulled out their cell phones to take photos and videos of the attack, but not one intervened or called the police until a security guard came outside. While it can be dangerous to step in while a violent crime is taking place, officials note that calling the police, yelling in a crowd that police are nearby in an attempt to deter attackers among other actions that involve little personal risk can ultimately save lives.
The lack of personal responsibility felt by each bystander at Pham’s murder can be partially attributed to pluralistic ignorance. Pluralistic ignorance is the paradox that occurs when individuals form beliefs based on their false perceptions of how others think or feel. For example, if someone stepped out of the bar and saw Pham needed help and was dying, he or she likely saw the reactions of onlookers casually taking videos and figured everyone believed this situation was not something to be concerned over. People not calling for help or intervening in any way contributes to others doing the same.
The bystander effect and pluralistic ignorance does not only apply to violent crimes. The phenomenon can occur during something as mundane as group text messages or emails. People are less likely to respond to communication when it is sent to multiple people, as others assume that one of the other recipients will answer the sender’s question or provide information. Dr. Melissa Burkley, associate professor at Oklahoma State University, explains the concept as it applies to students in a classroom. She notes that students are afraid to raise their hands and ask questions because “each one assumes they are the only one confused, when in fact all the students are confused and all of them are incorrectly concluding that they are the only one.”
Witnessing a violent crime can cause anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder in bystanders, whether they intervene or not. If this applies to you or your loved one, help is available. Sovereign Health Group specializes in treating individuals struggling with mental health disorders, substance abuse and dual diagnosis. Call (866) 819-0427 to speak with a professional today.
Written by Courtney Howard, Sovereign Health Group writer